After a rocky start to the season, the Colorado Avalanche have snuck back into the playoff picture with 53 points in 49 games, ahead of divisional rivals the Nashville Predators. While it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Avalanche have gone 7-3-0 in their last ten games, it’s their dominant divisional play that has catapulted them from the bottom of the standings.
Yes, Colorado, one of the worst possession teams according to advanced statistics, is tied for first in the league with the Washington Capitals at generating points during in-division games. Both teams boast an intradivision 76.7 points percentage (that is to say they’ve come out with 23 of 30 available points) so far this season.
While it’s no surprise that the league-leading Capitals are the best of the best against the Metropolitan Division, the Avalanche are a far cry from being considered the best team in the Central. So what is driving their success?
Well, it certainly has helped that the Avalanche have been picking up steam in January, banking 14 points, 8 of them against Central Division opponents. Still, the underlying numbers haven’t been kind to Colorado.
5-on-5, the Avalanche are only putting up a 44.8 Corsi For percentage, but it’s just 43.4 percent against Central Division rivals. The numbers in January are a little better, at 46.3 percent overall, and 44.7 percent versus the central, but they’re still nowhere near where you’d expect a team with an 11-3-1 record to be.
And it’s not that they’re getting a disproportionate amount of wins at home either. The Avalanche have won six of eight games at home, and five of seven matchups on the road. Denver is often considered one of the most difficult places to play because of the altitude, but that doesn’t seem to be giving the Avalanche the advantage against other divisions; they’re 12-10-3 at home overall.
Unfortunately for Colorado, the answer seems to be “pure dumb luck”.
With all of the underlying numbers pointing out that they haven’t actually improved in play, all that’s left is to look at variables that fluctuate randomly.
This chart looks at the Avalanche’s save percentage 5-on-5. The league average is around 0.926, which is about exactly where Colorado lands overall. However, against the Central Division, the Avalanche’s goalies are posting an extremely good 0.933 save percentage. This has fallen a bit in January, but it’s still above their overall number for the month and well over league average.
It’s too much to ask of Varlamov and Pickard to keep putting up these kinds of numbers against the dangerous offenses of the Central Division.
On the other side of the ice, Colorado has an abnormally high shooting percentage, 11.6 percent, against the central. The league average is just 8.8 percent. Even though that percentage is starting to return to normal, dropping to 9.1 percent in January, it’s a major factor in what has driven the Avalanche’s success.
Why is all of this bad news? Because none of this behavior is particularly sustainable. It’s very rare for goalies to maintain such high save percentages throughout a season, and even the best shooters, like the Avalanche have in Matt Duchene, will go through cold streaks.
The Avalanche may currently have the best in-division record in the NHL, but it’s being driven by luck, and you just can’t count on that to stick around all season.